‘Those Who Fell Along the Way’

I heard the poet Stanley Kunitz read his poem “The Layers” on the PBS Newshour maybe ten years ago (here’s the transcript, which contains a link to streaming video; it’s worth a look for his explanation of the poem). I’ve been thinking on and off all day that this is August 29th, the anniversary of our mom’s death; and then I took a Kunitz collection down from my bookshelf and remembered this poem, a good one to read on a day when I’m reflecting on those who have gone before us.

The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp_sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Me and Bob Dylan at the Fox Oakland

As reported earlier, we went to see Bob Dylan play at the Fox Theatre in Oakland the other night. The No. 1 reason I wanted to go: our son Thom invited us. The theater, a landmark movie palace that has been refurbished after sitting empty for decades, was also a draw. And also: Bob Dylan–why not?

I had seen him just once, back in January 1974 at the start of his tour with The Band. Others with a better grasp of Dylan’s history might correct me, but I think that tour was his first since the late ’60s. Anyway, the big draw to me then was The Band, which I had seen several times and whose music I really loved. And to get to see them play with Bob Dylan, just coming back onto the road and whom they’d performed with when he went electric, seemed historic. What I remember about that show is going with a big group, including my brothers and several friends. I remember people lighting matches during the performance (at the old Chicago Stadium), the first time I saw that at a concert. And among the songs played that stuck in my memory were “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” How would I have rated that show? Ten out of a possible ten, like every other time I saw The Band.

Before Dylan played the other night–our group consisted of Kate, Thom, Thom’s squeeze Eleanor, her dad, Jef, their family friend Ellen, and me–we talked about some of our favorite songs and speculated whether we’d hear them. I’m not what I’d call a really avid Dylan listener, but my experience is that I tend to forget how much I like most of his music until I hear it again. I was thinking I’d like to hear “Memphis Blues Again” and was wondering whether “Just Like a Woman” was something Dylan still plays in concert. He did both songs, even letting the audience sing the chorus of the latter number (not sing along with, because Dylan remained silent as the audience did its thing). Also: “Visions of Johanna,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” “Cold Irons Bound” (which Thom remarked sounded very similar to covers of Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole,” and I would easily have mistaken the song for that once he pointed that out).

A friend had warned me that Dylan’s voice wasn’t what it once was. I wasn’t worried about that; for one thing, I’d heard his band was great, and that turned out to be true; and for another, well, we’ve all heard the voice over the years and know how it’s changed. The only song on which I’d say his vocal performance was disappointing was “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Part of that is having Rick Danko’s vocal in mind when I hear the song, but partly is was because of the laughable understatement with which Dylan almost inaudibly intoned the climactic line of the chorus, “This wheel shall explode.” He infused it with all the drama of a Walgreen’s clerk saying, “This shampoo prevents dandruff.” Enough said. Any disappointment was more than outweighed by the fact the song was in the concert, and the band played it well.

Beyond any particular reaction to the songs Dylan chose or how they were sung was the constant strange time-shifting I experienced while listening to music that I first heard more than 40 years ago coming out of the mouth of the guy who performed it back then. Like I said, we’ve all heard that voice and how it has changed. Whenever I hear numbers from “Nashville Skyline,” I still ask myself how the guy you hear on “Lay Lady Lay” can be the same one you hear on “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Positively 4th Street.” Before that, a big part of Dylan’s folk audience was wondering how the guy doing those songs could have been the same one they loved as the heir to the Woody Guthrie tradition. So listening the other night, I was constantly going back and hearing a little echo of Dylan’s used-to-be voices as he sang with today’s voice.

Set lists:
January 3, 1974, Dylan/The Band show at the Chicago Stadium
August 24, 2010, Dylan show at the Fox Oakland

‘Good Morning, BART Riders’

I’m sitting at the forward end of the car, the last coach on the train, riding backward, on my way to work late Tuesday morning. The door from the next car opens, and a voice says, “Go on–get in there.” A girl of 12 or so and a woman maybe in her 30s come through the door and walk down the aisle, then stop about a third of the way through the car. The woman starts up, and I realize immediately I’ve heard her spiel before.

“Good morning, BART riders,” she declaims. “My daughter and I have been homeless for two and a half months because I am a victim of domestic violence. We’re getting put out of our shelter at 11 a.m. My daughter hasn’t even eaten today. I have a hearing today at 2 o’clock, and I’m trying to raise forty-three ninety-nine for food and a place to stay.”

That’s it. The number catches my attention: $43.99. It’s part of the hustle–a number that’s supposed to be more persuasive for being so oddly specific. I’ve closed my eyes because I don’t want to see what happens next, whether or not anyone forks over some money. When I encountered the mom and daughter a few months ago on BART, I thought the girl looked stricken, humiliated.

The train pulls into the West Oakland station, and the pair get off. Most people in the car are sitting alone with their thoughts about what they’ve just seen. Several people sitting near the door discuss it.

“She does that all of the time,” a man says. “Every day. It’s a good scam.”

“But her poor daughter has to go through that every day,” the woman across the aisle says. A second man: “Her baby should be in school.”

“They use them kids,” the first man says, “they use them kids as a lure. It’s a good scam. She’s probably got more money on her than you have in you bank account. Yeah, she’s got a stash on her somewhere. She’s probably over on the other side right now getting on another train.”

Ankle Biters, You’ve Been Warned

oaklandfox082410a.jpgAt the Fox Oakland last night, before the Bob Dylan show. Do these folks follow Dylan around, or do they just look for likely rock shows with large gatherings of the soon-to-be-damned? I’m taken by the lists of people who face condemnation in this crowd’s book–a curious collection of life-style misdemeanants (“sports nuts”), other Christians (“Catholics”), even non-humans (“vomit-eating dogs”). And homosexuals, of course. And ankle biters. Ankle biters?

The sign below promises Jesus will destroy “unforgiving liars … effeminate revilers … deceitful adulterers” and so on and so forth. Does that mean Christ will look the other way for liars who forgive, manly revilers, and up-front adulterers?


Worst of Weeks, Best of Weeks


The worst: Well, we won’t go into all that here. But we’ve had plenty of fodder for soul-searching the last little while or so. We expect we’re not alone in that, and we also are close to folks who are going through far, far harder times. Maybe we’ll learn something from it all and go on to higher understanding, a more upright life, and great accomplishments. OK–we’s take the understanding, anyway, and maybe some of the rest will follow.

The best: We took a car-camping trip last week, our first in years. Completed an unplanned and somewhat haphazard circuit that happened to encompass the watersheds of the Tuolumne and Mokelumne rivers (the former is impounded by a series of dams and shipped by aqueduct to San Francisco and some suburbs; the latter is dammed and shipped to the East Bay). Some pictures–forgive the redundancies–are on Flickr: Car Camping, August 2010.

Above: Part of the Great Bayshore Viaduct, aka Overpass World. Shot this morning; color manipulated afterward because we needed to do a little experimentation.

Bay Area August: Departures from Normal

Saturday and Sunday were actually sunny here, for the most part. Off to the west Sunday night, Venus was visible well after dark–the first time I’ve seen that in weeks. Not that this signals a break in our marathon summer fogfest. The forecast for the next week calls for more of what we’ve been having for weeks along the coast: cool, mostly gray days that might give way to an hour or two of honest sunshine. Highs in the low to mid 60s. (This is not a complaint. Our air-conditioning bills here: zero.)

The map below is something that my friend Pete pointed me to a couple weeks ago. It’s from the Western Regional Climate Center and is a quick take on how much our daily high temperatures have departed from normal. There’s a tiny wedge just north of San Francisco–Point Reyes–where daily maximums have been more than 10 degrees lower than average. Here in Berkeley, highs have been 6 to 8 degrees below normal, and that’s pretty much the story for most of the rest of region. temperatures.gif

Might as Well Charge the Most


A few years ago, I was looking for a particular item of apparel as a Christmas gift: a heavy wool red-and-black-check jacket. When I started looking around online, I quickly found what I wanted: a Mackinaw Cruiser made by a Seattle company called Filson. Looking at this article, even on a computer screen, there was no doubt that it was the real thing: heavy and well-made and beautifully detailed. The price: a lot, given that what we’re talking about is a fairly straightforward piece of clothing. But I paid gladly and the jacket turned out to be everything I and the recipient expected.

Because of that purchase, the Filson catalogue still comes in the mail. It’s a demystified version of the retail literature once published by the late J. Peterman Company. It’s full of items made from “Tin Cloth” and “Oil Finish Tin Cloth” and “Shelter Cloth” and “Cover Cloth,” and it employs the trademark phrase “Might as Well Have the Best” (first used in 1930, registered as a mark in 2001). The “have the best” idea supplies its own mythos and offers an explanation for the prices (you can pay better than a hundred bucks for a thermal undershirt, two hundred for a pair of wool trousers, and as much as four hundred for one of the heavy-duty wool coats). The rest of the Filson romance is supplied in the catalogue by apparently genuine period pictures from the turn of the last century depicting rugged men in rugged clothes doing rugged things. Surely, the old-timers didn’t flinch when it came time to have the best. (According to the generally loving local coverage of the company provided over the years by the Seattle Times–see, for instance, “The Genuine Article,” published in 2005– the company was founded to outfit men traveling to Alaska and the Canadian northwest during the Klondike rush in the late 1890s.)

By coincidence, the catalogue description of a sweater I was looking at noted that the item was imported. Which of course clashes a little with the old-timey “have the best” image. A quick count of merchandise in the catalogue found about 265 items, of which 83 are imports. Virtually all the higher-end products–the heavy coats, the Tin Cloth outerwear, a line of twill luggage–are made in Seattle. A lot of the shirts, sweaters, and slacks come from overseas (according to another Seattle Times article, the offshore locations are in China and Portugal).

Who in Seattle makes the pricy items Filson sells? Again, according to press accounts, the company employs maybe 80 people in its plant–unionized, mostly women, mostly Asian, paid by the piece and making about ten dollars an hour on average. That wage figure tells you nothing about how many hours goes into making one of the Filson garments, but the company’s revenue figures–generally put at just $25 million to $30 million a year–would suggest that this is a low-volume business relative to an apparel company like Patagonia, which has more than ten times the revenue. I’d love to see how Filson’s stuff pencils out–their costs for the high-end items and the margins they’re charging. But it would seem the high prices are largely a factory of what is, for today, practically a boutique approach to production.

A couple of other interesting Filson finds:

A slideshow of its factory floor, shot by photographer Charles Peterson.

A small collection of items on Filson from men’s fashion site Selectism.

Donner Land


The Dog and I made a quick trip (I drove) this weekend up to the Donner Summit area in the Sierra Nevada. We went to see my friends Linda and Dave (The Dog got to hang out with their dogs, Dolly and Hannah). Sunday morning, we drove up to what I see referred to on maps as Donner Ridge–on the eastern/southern boundary of the Tahoe-Donner mega-development. We walked a fire trail for an hour and a half or so in actual sunshine (as opposed to the thick gray blanket of overcast still clinging this morning to the coast). Anyway, here’s a shot southeast from the ridge. Interstate 80, descending from Donner Pass, is in the center foreground. On the ridge opposite, you can see the snow sheds of the old Union Pacific line that trains used to take over the pass; I think they now run through a tunnel a little further south.

The first rocky peak in the center is Donner Peak, elevation 8203; and the friendlier-looking flat summit directly behind it is Mount Judah, elevation 8,243. Donner Summit, the heights the 1846 party tried to scale in the snow, with wagons, livestock, families, and various domestic accouterments, is to the right.

Somewhere It’s Summer …

Well, summer is everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, to be technical. You can tell because it’s hot just about everywhere east of the Berkeley Hills. And I mean everywhere: I hear on NPR this morning that Moscow (the one in Russia) just chalked up its first 100-degree reading in 120 years of record-keeping.

But west of the Berkeley Hills? It’s been a cool, cool summer so far. Jan Null, a local meteorologist, says in a message to his email list that San Francisco just went through the coolest July in decades. He writes:

“With an average monthly maximum July temperature of just 63.1 degrees, San Francisco had its coolest July since 1971 and the 13th coolest in the past 97 years. (See table below) Only one day reached the 70 degree mark (72 degrees on 7/3 and no day after the 17th exceeded 64 degrees.”

I will only add that now we’re into August, which by tradition if not meteorological fact is regarded as the coolest, foggiest month along this stretch of coast. The week’s certainly starting out with a nice cold, gray blanket of clouds–thick enough that we had a light drizzle this morning. (And lest anyone think I’m whining, let me add that most of these chill mornings in the East Bay have been giving way to spectacular, sunny afternoons during which the temperature gets clear up to the high 60s and maybe even nudges 70.)